I wrote this piece for the April 2018 print edition of Hearing Aid Magazine.
A response to If You Need To, Keep Time On Me by Fleet Foxes
Halfway through Crack Up, Fleet Foxes most recent album, there’s a song called If You Need To, Keep Time On Me. It’s a slowly lilting ballad, a gentle whimsical breather that sometimes feels fairly depressive, at other times, simplistically optimistic. In part, this is due to the mood of the music – the porous flow between minor and major chords, the lingering vocals. But I think another reason the song creates such a range of reactions is because of its title and main lyric: ‘If you need to, keep time on me.’ No matter how many times I reflect on this phrase, I’m unable to settle on my interpretation of it.
What does it mean to ‘keep time’? Is it musical; keeping in time with a beat, a band, a rhythm? Or is it a measurement, a monitoring; someone watching the grains of sand pass through an hourglass, the big hand flick around the face of their watch, or the linear flashes of a digital clock rearrange themselves from 00:00 into 00:01?
In the Oxford English Dictionary, there are over forty different entries underneath ‘keep, v.’ It’s a beguiling verb, whose possessive nature ranges from the care of a shepherd who keeps his flock, through the meticulous records maintained by the keeper of books, to the finances flung at a kept woman. Until the 1400s, ‘to keep’ might have meant ‘to take in with the eyes, ears or mind; to take note of, mark, behold, observe’. That meaning is now obsolete – the idea of sensory immersion has been replaced by the contemporary connotation that ‘to keep’ something is to hold onto it, to keep hold of it.
So what would it mean to keep hold of time? Would it be an act of paralysis, an attempt to clutch at and prolong a moment that is running away, running out? Or would it be more of a mental hold, an understanding – appreciating its passing, marking the minutiae of its coming and goings?
A Google search comes up with hundreds of fan theories about the song’s meaning. Unsurprisingly, they all mainly revolve around the idea of a relationship: ‘keep time on me’, he sings, as an urge to rely on him, to record the rhythms of life by his mark.
It’s true that within all its various costumes, ‘keep’ always implies some sense of constancy, of endurance and safety. “Keep going!” your instructor shouts as you try to keep fit; “Keep at it!” your friend messages, as you work late into the night to keep on top of things. Keeping time is comforting – we’re disorientated when we wake up in a room with blackout blinds, immediately asking, ‘What time is it?’. And imagine a world where there were no seasons, no way to keep track of the year by the timid unfurling of flowers, or the litter of leaves across the road?
I thought more about this act of recording, of using someone or something as a reference point, a way of keeping time that’s more evocative than a date in time itself. The other day, a friend and I were trying to remember if we felt or thought differently at the age of 19. Trying to imagine myself into my nineteen-year-old head, I had to think back to what I was doing at that time. Neither the age itself, nor the year of 2013, meant much to me. I needed an event, a stage of life to give meaning to time’s numbers. In 2013, at the age of 19, I was in a year long hiatus between school and university. That was my reference point; events are one of the ways in which I ‘keep time’. Many other things have the same evocative effect – a song can immediately transplant us back to a car drive to a particular party, or a specific period of teenage self-pity. Everyone knows that smell is incredibly powerful as a time-keeper – sniff the right sort of washing powder, and you’re back in bed with an ex you haven’t seen in years. There are many myriad ways in which we keep time, one of which can be, as Fleet Foxes suggest, through the presence of people in our lives. Music, smell, people, events – the options are various and work to varying degrees with different people.
Aside from events, another one of the ways I keep time is through books, and poetry. I remember what I was reading, when. And if I look through the folder on my laptop, every poem is a little Word document tied to a specific point on the timeline of my life. I can remember the fragment of a thought that made me write down the first line, or a prolonged feeling I tried to put down in words. I’ll remember writing this piece of prose, and I’ll remember writing the poem below, which I chose to end the piece with. In a way, I’ll have done what Fleet Foxes asked – I’ll have kept time on them.
Backwards clock: lost midnight, seven
slipped into six and a cider-sun dawn.
Sunday spread its sticky glaze, an orchard
of longing holding onto the g
so it was long ging like a slug
from a Lilt can, crinkled
around the edges of a single use barbeque
burning in sand dunes and samphire reeds
until a foxtail flashed, and snuck back
into the fleeting catacombs of dusk.